The first US-hosted meeting between ASEAN and US heads of defence that begins today will be watched more for signs of continuing American commitment to its Asian rebalance rather than any concrete announcement.
Analysts in Washington say it is unlikely the meeting, held in Hawaii, will produce any significant breakthrough, but argue that the three-day meeting can still stand as a clear demonstration of United States engagement in the region.
Said former Pentagon official Brian Harding: "I think it says a lot that when it seems like the world is on fire, he (US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel) is taking three days out of his schedule to meet with a grouping that is critically important over the long-term, even though it isn't today.
"I think this demonstrates the leadership of the department of defence is committed to the rebalance and isn't going to be preoccupied with the issue of the day."
The White House regards multilateral organisations like ASEAN as key to preserving stability in Asia-Pacific in the future and Mr Hagel reiterated yesterday the role he sees the bloc playing.
"It's pretty clear the tremendous progress that's been made in the Asia-Pacific the last few years has been much the result of a secure area, an area that has worked through many of its differences peacefully... And the ASEAN institution itself, that organisation is a critically important part of that. So to have the 10 ASEAN defence ministers in Hawaii, on United States soil, is important," he said.
There had been growing concerns in recent months that an aggressive Russia and continuing unrest in the Middle East would distract the US from its promised pivot towards Asia.
Adding to the anxiety in many parts of Asia was China's increasingly assertive stance on territorial disputes, as well as news that the Pentagon was trimming its spending.
In stark contrast earlier this year, Washington said it would cut its army to pre-World War II levels, while Beijing unveiled a 12 per cent jump in military spending.
And while the Obama administration's pivot will be at the top of the agenda, the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has also added urgency to talks of boosting military-to-military coordination when responding to disasters.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said last week that the Defence Secretary was keen to get into a broader discussion about improving "interoperability between partners and friends". "Just look at what's going on with the search for Flight 370. It's a multinational effort in a very hostile environment at sea... There's no chain of command specifically for that."
He added: "Everybody's coming together to try to do the best they can and it's at times like that, when disaster strikes, that you want to be able to put aside whatever differences you might have and work together - but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look for ways to try and work together better and more efficiently. And I think that's what he (Mr Hagel) is trying to get after here in this summit."
Similarly, Mr Ernest Bower, senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that Flight MH370 "demonstrates the very real need for greater coordination among regional militaries, intelligence agencies and ministries of foreign affairs and defence".
The meeting, coming during the search for the jet, will focus minds on strengths and weaknesses in regional cooperation.
"People have sat around major forums in Asia the past several years talking about cooperating on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," said former Pentagon official Mr Harding. "Here you have a tangible case where you can sit down and talk about what went well, what went badly, and how we can do better in the future," he said.
This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.
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